I stumbled across a fantastic article in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal that should be a must-read for those in the Gov 2.0 movement as well as anyone that has ever used the “Iranian Election” example when promoting the growing influence and importance of Twitter and other social networks.
The Digital Dictatorship, written by Georgetown University fellow Evgeny Morozov (@evgenymorozov), throws a bit of cold water on the movement for “Internet freedom” as a cornerstone of American foreign policy, noting that there are “many reasons to be skeptical.”
Contrary to the Utopian rhetoric of social media enthusiasts, the Internet often makes the jump from deliberation to participation even more difficult, thwarting collective action under the heavy pressure of never-ending internal debate. This is what may explain the impotence of recent protests in Iran: Thanks to the sociability and high degree of decentralization afforded by the Internet, Iran’s Green Movement has been split into so many competing debate chambers—some of them composed primarily of net-savvy Iranians in the diaspora—that it couldn’t collect itself on the eve of the 31st anniversary of the Islamic revolution. The Green Movement may have simply drowned in its own tweets.
The government did its share to obstruct its opponents, too. Not only did it thwart Internet communications, the government (or its plentiful loyalists) also flooded Iranian Web sites with videos of dubious authenticity—one showing a group of protesters burning the portrait of Ali Khamenei—that aimed to provoke and splinter the opposition. In an environment like this—where it’s impossible to distinguish whether your online interlocutors are your next-door neighbors, some hyperactive Iranians in the diaspora, or a government agent masquerading as a member of the Green Movement—who could blame ordinary Iranians for not taking the risks of flooding the streets only to find themselves arrested?
Another insight would seem to apply not just to authoritarian nation-states, but also applies to the U.S. and other governments who are looking to better engage citizens using new online platforms:
We spend so much time thinking about the dissidents and how the Internet has changed their lives, that we have almost completely neglected how it affects the lives of the average, non-politicized users, who would be crucial to any democratic revolution.
Replace “dissidents” with “Internet generation” or similar term, and I think you’ve captured one of the growing issues around open government and Gov 2.0 in general – how do engage the citizenry beyond the political activists or special interest groups. How do we create “Citizen 2.0?”
Anyway, Morozof’s article raises some good points that leave you thinking beyond the rah-rah mentality that many in Gov 2.0 circles typically find themselves (myself included). I found it a fascinating read, and think you will too.